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MOST AMERICANS ARE URBAN FOLK

One of the great myths of romantic fiction is that most of us are simple folk who gladly would live in a thatched cottage by a babbling brook, communing with nature far from the madding crowd.

Most of us, in fact, are confirmed city dwellers who choose to live in noisy, polluted, highly civilized communities where you can drive to a job, a supermarket, a good restaurant, a theater, a hospital or a football game in 30 minutes or less.Figures compiled by the Census Bureau show that more than half of all Americans now live in 39 large metropolitan areas, each with populations of over a million. Ninety percent of population growth during the 1980s came in 284 metropolitan areas.

Fewer than 2 percent of Americans live on farms. That compares with 35 percent in 1910 and about 25 percent in 1930, before the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression drove thousands of families off the land.

If cities in this country have problems with congestion and pollution, as most of them do, the situation is much grimmer in the developing countries, where environmental standards are lax and millions of people live in shacks without nearby access to drinkable water or modern sanitation.

Urban pollution is so pervasive in Asia and Latin America that the World Bank, never noted for its environmental sensitivities, is lending $1.4 billion this year to assorted cleanup projects.

Pollution is especially virulent in Mexico City, where bad air causes an estimated 6,400 deaths per year in addition to lost work days and unhealthy exposure to ozone, carbon monoxide and lead.

The World Bank is lending $220 million there to enforce emission standards for new vehicles, install vapor recovery systems at service stations and help develop an air quality management strategy.

Similar problems are evident in Bangkok, Jakarta, Manila and urban areas of Peru, where a 1991 cholera epidemic caused 2,600 deaths and an estimated $1 billion in losses to farming, fishing and tourism.

"In the entire developing world," says a World Bank report, "only 40 percent of urban dwellings are connected to sewers, and where there is sewerage, more than 90 percent of the wastewater is discharged without treatment."

The report goes on to say that "inadequate sanitation is a major cause of sickness in cities and a drain on urban economies, stemming from lost work days due to illness and the costs of treating pollution-related illnesses, and cleaning up the mess left behind."

Lewis Preston, the former New York banker (J.P. Morgan) who runs the World Bank, says it makes sense to clean up urban filth.

"Protecting the rain forest will preserve natural resources for the next generation, but cleaning up cities will help hundreds of millions of people right now," he says.